by Alice Thomas
It’s that time of year…again. And…if we keep doing the same thing over and over, we will keep getting the same results.
For over 40 years, study after study on grade retention has reached the same conclusion: Failing a student, particularly in the critical ninth grade year, is the single largest predictor of whether he or she will drop out of school (Edley, 2002). Widespread retention further exacerbates the achievement gap. In Massachusetts, for example, across all grades, African-American and Hispanics are retained at over three times the rate of whites (Edley, 2002).
According to research (Anderson, Jimerson and Whipple, 2002; NASP, 2003; Jimerson, Anderson and Whipple, 2002; Setencich, 1994), some of the devastating effects of retention are:
- Most children do not “catch up” when held back.
- Although some retained students do better at first, these children often fall behind again in later grades.
- Retention is one of the most powerful predictors of high school dropout; holding a child back twice makes dropping out of school 90% certain.
- In 2001, 6th grade students ranked grade retention as the most stressful life event, followed by losing a parent and going blind.
- Students who are held back tend to get into trouble, dislike school, and feel badly about themselves more often than children who go on to the next grade.
- The weakened self-esteem that usually accompanies retention plays a role in how well the child may cope in the future.
If we do not want these same results, what can we do differently?
Implement Response to Intervention correctly.
The key word is correctly. Early identification of student needs and application of evidence-based instructional strategies can prevent failure (Anderson, Whipple and Jimerson, 2002; U. S. Department of Education, 2002; Lyon and Fletcher, 2001; Lyon, 2002). Once student needs are identified, evidence-based intervention that is specific to each student’s needs should be conducted with intensity and fidelity, and the student’s response to the intervention should guide the next step in his/her instruction.
Ensure that intervention is implemented by highly effective teachers.
The key words are highly effective – our best. Our toughest-to-teach students need our best teachers. Teachers are not equally effective at identifying student needs and applying instructional strategies that are the most appropriate for student needs. The seminal study conducted by Sanders and Rivers (1996) examined the cumulative and residual effects of teachers on student achievement and found a wide chasm between the impact on student achievement by effective teachers and ineffective teachers. Equally performing second graders were separated by as many as 50 percentile points on standardized tests by the time they reached fifth grade solely as a result of being taught by teachers whose effectiveness varied greatly.
In this study, teachers were divided into three groups – low, average, and high – based on their students’ performance. There was a sharp difference in performance between students who had three teachers rated “low” and three teachers who were rated “high” during a three-year period.
Yet low performing students within a school and low schools in general are about twice as likely to be assigned the least effective teachers.
Implement customized, intense professional learning.
The key words are customized and intense – the right prescription and the right dosage. Standards set the course, and assessments provide the benchmarks, but it is highly effective teaching that makes substantial, sustained gains in student learning. Therefore, a primary focus should be to provide educators with meaningful professional learning on evidence-based ways to effectively differentiate instruction for the diverse learners in our schools.
Professional learning should be customized to meet the specific needs of school and district educators. Disaggregated student and teacher data should be examined and then professional development should be built around student and teacher performance. It is critical to continuously evaluate progress and adjust accordingly.
Professional learning should include coaching and modeling in the classroom, observations with constructive feedback, and focused interactive teacher study groups. The combination of both group and individual professional learning increases collective internal accountability within schools and districts.
Focus on reading.
The most notable academic deficit for retained students is in reading (NASP, 2003). Reading is a strong intervening factor in academic areas across the disciplines. For example, students who are unprepared in reading have a 15% chance of succeeding in high school math and a 1% chance of succeeding in high school science, while students who are good readers have a 67% chance of succeeding in high school math and a 32% chance in high school science (ACT, 2008).
It gets worse: 85% of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate (NAAL, 2003). More than 60 percent of all prison inmates are functionally illiterate (NAAL, 2003). The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure (Brunner, 1993).
Do we really need more reasons to focus on reading?
ACT (2008). The forgotten middle: Ensuring that all students are on target for college and career readiness before high school. Iowa City, IA: Author.
Anderson, G. E., Whipple, A. D., and Jimerson, S. R. (2002). Grade retention: Achievement and mental health outcomes. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists. www.nasponline.org/pdf/graderetention.pdf
Anderson, G. E., Jimerson, S. R. and Whipple, A. D. (2002). Children’s ratings of stressful experiences at home and school: Loss of a parent and grade retention as superlative stressors. Manuscript prepared for publication; available from authors at University of California, Santa Barbara.
Baer, J., Kutner, M., and Sabatini, J. (2009). Basic Reading Skills and the Literacy of America’s Least Literate Adults: Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) Supplemental Studies (NCES 2009-481). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC.
Brunner, M. (1993). Retarding America: The imprisonment of potential. Portland, OR: Halcyon House.
Edley, C. and Wald, J. (2002). The grade retention fallacy. www.civilrightsproject.harvard.edu/research/articles/retention_edley.php
Jimerson, S. R. (2003). Grade retention in the United States. Communique, 31, 5. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
Jimerson, S. R. Anderson, G. E., and Whipple, A. D. (2002). Winning the battle and losing the war: Examining the relation between grade retention and dropping out of high school. Psychology in the Schools, 39, 441-457.
Jimerson, S. R. (2001). On the failure of failure: Examining the association between early grade retention and education and employment outcomes during late adolescence. Journal of School Psychology, 37, 243-272.
Jimerson, S. R. (2001). Meta-analysis of grade retention research: Implications for practice in the 21st century. School Psychology Review, 30, 313-330.
Lyon, G. R. and Thomas, A. (2003). A conceptual framework for Louisiana’s reading implementation. Unpublished paper.
Lyon, G. R. (2002). Learning disabilities and early intervention strategies. Testimony to the Subcommittee on Education Reform, Committee on Education and the Workforce, U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., June 6, 2002.
Lyon, G.R. and Fletcher, J. M. ( 2001). Early identification, prevention and early intervention for children at-risk for reading failure. Basic Education, 46, 3, 12-14.
National Association of School Psychologists Position Paper on Student Grade Retention and Social Promotion (2003). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists. www.nasponline.org/information/pospaper_graderetent.html
National Center on Response to Intervention (March 2010). Essential components of RTI – A closer look at Response to Intervention. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, National Center on Response to Intervention.
National Staff Development Council (2001). Standards for staff development, Revised. Oxford, OH: National Staff Development Council.
Sanders, W. L. and Rivers, J. C. (1996). Cumulative and residual effects of teachers on future student academic achievement. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Value-Added Research and Assessment Center. www.ncela.gwu.edu/oela/summit/cd/files/sbr/sanders.pdf
Setencich, J. (1994). The impact of early grade retention on the academic achievement and self-esteem of seventh and eighth grade students. Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the National Association of School Psychologists. Seattle, WA: ED 393 026.
Thomas, A. (2002). Louisiana Leadership and Literacy Initiative. Covington, LA: Center for Development and Learning.
Alice Thomas is president and CEO of the Center for Development and Learning.